Are Arts Courses Valuable?

HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has been reported as saying “Arts courses promote unrealistic career prospects to potential students”. An official report stating there is a ‘mismatch’ between the number of students enrolled on arts courses and those gaining entry into the industry seems to agree with her. The report and Ms Spielman express concern that colleges and providers advertising themselves as offering good career prospects and popular arts courses are giving learners false hope.

But is this really the case, and if it is, what should we do about it?

The Job Market

The report on the Level 2 Programmes says that many of the jobs listed by providers as possible career options are “unlikely to be available for the vast majority of learners”. The FE News Editor feels the misinformation provided to potential students about career prospects is doing them a “disservice” while Debra Gray claims that there is a job market for those interest in the arts and that the issue is more to do with perception than a lack of jobs. She goes on to say that there are currently 2 million people employed in creative industries and 3 million people employed as creative professionals in non-creative industries, which suggests that the career prospects for those studying arts courses are in the multitude. This is further backed by comments about employment within creative industries growing 4x faster than any other sector within the UK at this present time.

Leigh Adams, Director of Education, BFI agrees, stating that the screen industry is the fastest growing industry within the UK and it on its own provides £8bn to the UK economy and has a predicted 30,000 new vacancies over the next 5 years, meaning “job prospects across the screen sectors are more than ‘viable’ they are very real.”

So what is the issue then if the jobs are there?

Debra Gray says the true issue is the assumptions being made about arts courses and careers. One of these is the claim that arts courses haven’t led to much ‘local’ employment but the arts and media industries are global and, in many cases, more of a freelance career. One, which research suggests, is often supported by a degree or equivalent education (around 60% compared to the 33% for all jobs in the UK).

Recommendations have been made for colleges and training providers to work more closely with local employers to ensure the courses they deliver and design help learners gain the skills and knowledge needed for entering the local employment market, but wider employment markets should not be forgotten and our young people should not be made to think their dreams and aspirations are hopeless and useless because there isn’t a job available in it where they live, or because of the recurring idea that arts courses  and hopes for a career in the arts will lead nowhere.

Transferable Skills

It is well known that there is a skills shortage in the UK, particularly among young people where around 800,000 16-24-year-olds are not in education, training or employment, and at the higher level. Employers have been recorded on many occasions saying that they are dissatisfied with the skills many school leavers are demonstrating upon arrival in employment. The executive summary by cbi.org.uk portrays 51% of employers surveyed as being dissatisfied with analytical skills and 48% with school leavers’ resilience and self-regulation. Interestingly enough, these are often the transferable skills arts courses promote, alongside communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and research skills. Arts courses involve developing lots of study and textual skills, as well as independence, self-expression and self-discipline, the vast majority of which are useful no matter which career area one ends up entering.

In truth, the Confederation of British Industry has stated that employers need young people “with attitudes and attributes such as resilience, enthusiasm and creativity” – creativity is something employers are actively searching for, because from creativity comes innovation and problem-solving. Creative and other arts courses, such as history, politics, languages and philosophy, seek to encourage creative thinking, diversity, individuality and the ability to relate to others. I’m sure we can all agree that such skills and attributes are useful across all sectors of industry.

Yet often, arts courses, especially degrees, are mocked and joked about as going ‘nowhere’ and being ‘useless’, frequently seen as a stop-gap for those unsure of their career choice. Instead, they should be seen as a tool, just as degrees and qualifications in STEM and business areas, because they provide learners with so much in terms of general knowledge and relevant skills. The Roberts Report highlighted the impact a lack of study in STEM areas was having, promoting investment and encouragement in those areas. Conversely, this has led to creative subjects declining and they are now as much at risk as STEM was in 2002. There seems to be a wide-spread view that STEM and the arts are competing but this is not the case. In fact, Nesta found that companies combining the arts with science (think STEAM instead of STEM) far outperformed their competitors in terms of employment, productivity and innovation.

The Way Forward

It seems clear to me that the issue to be concerned about is not how many people studying arts courses go on to enter employment within the creative industries and whether students are being given ‘false hope’ about their career prospects at 16. For one, how many of us are actually in the career we envisioned for ourselves in our adolescence? And furthermore, why do we insist on narrowing the idea of education to purely be fore employment and career purposes? Shouldn’t we be encouraging our young people (and the not-so-young) to learn for enjoyment, for self-improvement, for the skills and knowledge it will provide about and the tests that will challenge them?

As well as developing so many useful transferable and employable skills, regardless of future career plans, the arts courses are vital for the tools they provide about looking at the world and trying to understand it and our place in it, for how to express ourselves and define our self-identify, not to mention the benefits in terms of emotional nourishment and well-being.

Why can’t the goal be to develop, inspire and encourage the growth of well-rounded people? People full of knowledge, passion, resilience, self-confidence, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills that a broader curriculum encouraging learning in all its forms and at all levels would support.

I remember my adolescence, where the message I heard over and over was one of academic study and academic qualifications lead to success, that if I wanted to go anywhere, be somebody, then I needed to achieve good GCSEs, good A-Levels and go on to university. The pressure was everywhere and unrelenting, and it seems to be even greater now and with such a focus, it’s no wonder so many are struggling with skills and attributes such as teamwork, functional skills, communication skills, resilience and more. We need to stop and think about what sorts of adults we want to lead our country, our world forward and how do we go about ensuring we do our best by current and future generations. I think it starts with encouraging study into the arts, even purely as an extra to provide an outlet for creativity and self-expression, a place where wellbeing and mindfulness, empathy and enthusiasm are key.

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